The Spirit of the Law is a term commonly used
to describe how one is to view the law of the
scripture. It is a term that many have used to
interpret a very liberal view of the Law of God.
Many will say, "I practice the law in spirit,
not in letter." By saying this, they mean that
they do not practice the law of God at all, but rather, they
believe that since the Messiah practiced it for them they no longer
need to obey God's commands. The purpose of
this article is to define the meaning of Spirit of
the Law and identify it's application when studying
The Spirit of the Law is not a new term. It
goes back to ancient times. It is also not
simply a biblical term, but has its root in secular
law as well. In fact, we still practice this
principle in US law today. This term applies
to our use in Constitutional Law, court room
policies and procedures, and even in the rules of
sport and games. The popular play writer
William Shakespeare dealt many times with the
concepts of spirit of the law vs. letter of the law
in his plays. Shakespeare's play The
Merchant of Venice is a perfect example. The question to ask is, what
does the term Spirit of the Law mean?
Determining the intention of the legislature is the
primary rule in construing law. Under most
circumstances, the law should be written so as to be
clearly understood. However, if a law is
determined to be vague and ambiguous, the Canons of
Construction will be applied. The Canons of
Constructions are a list of basic rules and maxims
for interpreting law. A maxim of law is,
"An established principle or proposition. A
principle of law universally admitted, as being just
and consonant with reason" (A Law Dictionary,
John Bouvier, Revised 6th Edition, 1856).
These maxims of law are designed to determine the
intent of the legislature, which is the primary rule
of construing law. Some examples of maxims
A l'impossible nul n'est tenu - No one is bound
to do what is impossible.
Animus ad se omne jus ducit - It is to the
intention that all law applies.
unius est exclusio alterius - Whatever is
omitted is understood to be excluded.
These are just a few of the many maxims of law used
to construe statutes with the primary rule to
determine the intent of the legislature. This
is what the Spirit of the Law means in secular law.
To confirm this here are a few legal definitions.
Spirit of the law refers to ideas that the
creators of a particular law wanted to have
effect. It is the intent and purpose of the
When one obeys the spirit of the law but not the
letter, one is doing what the authors of the law
intended, though not necessarily adhering to the
literal wording. (Wikipedia, Letter and
Spirit of the Law)
From these definitions you can conclude that the
Spirit of the Law in secular law is the process by
which one determines the intent of the Legislature.
The question to ask is this, what does this have to
do with the scriptural definition of the Spirit of
The Spirit of the Law in the scriptures comes from a
couple of verses. In Romans 7:6, the Apostle
Paul states, "But now we are delivered from the
law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we
should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the
oldness of the letter." The comparison
between the letter and spirit clearly signifies an
interpretive understanding. Serving in the
"newness of spirit" is referencing how one
interprets the scriptures. After all, the
Pharisees interpreted the scriptures using a very
literal "letter" of the law interpretation.
This opens the door for an interpretation that is off point and out of context.
Construing law using the letter of the law will many
times lead to a legalistic interpretation that
completely ignores the intent of God for that law.
When the Apostle was teaching a spiritual
interpretation of the law, he was not removing the
letter of the law, but providing an interpretive
model for believers to use in understanding God's
law. The Spirit of the Law from the scriptures
perspective is just like the Spirit of the Law in
the secular world.
To understand this better we need to simply study
the Greek and Hebrew words used for spirit in the
scripture. The Hebrew word for spirit is
rûach. This word speaks of the breath of
God. Strong's Dictionary defines it as,
"wind; by resemblance breath, that is, a sensible
(or even violent) exhalation" (Strong's
Dictionary - H7307). The Greek word for spirit
is pneuma, which means, "a current of
air, that is, breath (blast) or a breeze"
(Strong's Dictionary - G4151). Both the Greek
and Hebrew word for spirit references the breath of
God. In light of our current legal definition
for the Spirit of the Law, these two words
demonstrate that the scriptural definition of the
Spirit of the Law is the same. When we study
God's Law we are to determine the intent and purpose
God had for that law. After all, God is the
lawmaker of the scriptures and it is His
interpretation (breath/spirit) that we need to
understand. In fact, we use this phrase today
regarding many topics. For example, you might
say, "In the spirit of Mother Theresa, we will care
for the sick and the poor." This shows the
word spirit meaning following her example and
understanding. This is how we are to interpret
the scripture, in the Spirit of God.
This is what the Apostle Peter meant when He said,
"Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the
scripture is of any private interpretation.
For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of
man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by
the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:20-21). This
is the definition of the Spirit of the Law. We
are not to interpret the scripture at all, but
instead we are to study and study until we
understand the scriptures the way God intended.
Keep in mind, this does not give us the liberty to
"wrest [the] scriptures", for this will
only bring us our "own destruction"
(2 Pet. 3:15-16). We need to be diligent to
study the scriptures the way God instructed.
Remember, the Bible is a law book, written in legal
code. Isaiah 28:9-14 tells us so. As
Isaiah states, "For precept must be upon
precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line
upon line; here a little, and there a little"
(Is. 28:10). We need to read each verse
pertaining to each subject and understand the
immediate context of the verse, which is what Isaiah
means by "precept upon precept; line upon line."
Then we need to take every verse on the subject and
put them together, which is what Isaiah means by
"here a little, and there a little."
This method of study is what a lawyer would call,
Code Pleading. It is how a lawyer studies law.
For more on how to study the scriptures please read
my article on How
The scripture is not without interpretive examples. Many times God
provided examples for us to learn from (1 Cor.
fact, this is how law works.
God's law includes several hundred commandments,
statutes and judgments. Commandments and
statutes are specific laws to explain a specific
command. Judgments are examples of how to
construe/interpret specific commandments and
statutes. It is with these judgments that we
can see an example of how God intended us to study
the scriptures. Here are few examples of
judgments in the scriptures:
The Building of the Temple: The Temple was
built by King Solomon around the 10th century
BC. This Temple was similar to the
Tabernacle, but was quite different in many
ways. For example, the Tabernacle was
mobile and built like a tent (Ex. 35:10-11).
The Temple was not mobile and built out of stone
(1 Kings 6:7). There were several other
differences as well, but the question to ask is
this, why was King Solomon allowed to break the
specific commands of how to build the
Tabernacle? This is an example of the
Spirit of the Law. God's intent for the
Tabernacle was to be used as a legal system
while in the wilderness. During Solomon's
reign Israel was settled in the land and a
permanent structure was within the Spirit of the
Law. Both the Tabernacle and the Temple
served the same purpose.
David eating the showbread: In 1 Samuel
21:3-6 King David was hungry and needed some
bread. He asked the priest for bread, but only
the shewbread from the Temple was available.
This bread was forbidden by God's law for anyone
to eat except the priest's, yet David broke this
law and ate it anyways (Lev. 24:5-9). It
is true that David broke the letter of the law,
but he did not break the Spirit of the Law.
The Messiah explains this in Luke 6:3-4.
The intent of the law concerning the Show Bread
was not to make someone starve, which made it
okay for David to eat. However, it would
be sin if David made a practice of this (Heb.
Ox in the ditch: When the Messiah dealt
with the Pharisees regarding working on the
Sabbath, one of his examples was that of a man
leading his ox to drink water or a man freeing
his ox stuck in a ditch (Luke 13:14, 14:5).
These are examples of using the Spirit of the
Law to interpret the law. God's intent was
not for an ox to go thirsty or an ox to die in a
ditch so we could rest. It is okay to deal
with basic animal needs on the Sabbath when
necessary. However, it would be against
the Sabbath laws to intentionally do unecessary
work on the Sabbath, even work regarding the
care of animals. We cannot use the Spirit
of the Law as an excuse to break the Sabbath,
but when a need arises the grace to break the
letter of the law is available.
Do not muzzle an ox: In 1 Corinthians
9:7-9, the Apostle Paul uses the Spirit of the
Law to explain a scriptural principle. The
law for not muzzling an ox while he is working
is to allow the working animal to eat and
provide the needed energy to complete the work.
It is wrong to keep the ox from doing so.
Likewise, you can extract from this law that man
can eat of the fruit of his labors. The
fact that this law can be used to explain a
principle that governs man does not remove the
fact that it still governs the ox. This
verse does not give a new explanation of the law
for muzzling an ox, but further explains the
intent of God for this law. It applies to
humans and animals alike.
Sabbath Laws: There are two laws regarding
the Sabbath that need to be interpreted using
the Spirit of the Law. One law says we are
not to travel on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29) and
another law says we cannot kindle a fire on the
Sabbath (Ex. 35:3). How are we to
interpret this? Since another commandment
also says we cannot forsake the assembly on the
Sabbath (Lev. 23:3, Heb. 10:25) we can conclude
that there is obviously an exception to travel
to the Sabbath assembly. There might also
be other emergencies that would allow for the
breaking of the letter of this law as well.
In regards to kindling a fire on the Sabbath,
since this statute was in regards to women
cooking on the Sabbath, we can conclude that
warming your house on the Sabbath during cold
temperatures is okay. This statute is so
women can rest on the Sabbath as well, but does
not mean your family needs to freeze by not
using a wood burning stove.
This is what Isaiah meant when he said the Messiah
would, "magnify the law, and make it honourable"
(Isaiah 42:21). The Messiah came and
demonstrated how to properly understand God's law.
This in no way removes the letter of the law for the
Messiah clearly used the letter of the law as well.
In Matthew 5:17-19 the Messiah mentions the
importance of every "jot" and "tittle"
of God's law. An example of how the Messiah
interpreted the scriptures is in explaining the
resurrection. The Sadducees questioned the
Messiah about the resurrection. His answer was
simple, yet He interpreted the scripture by the
Letter of the Law. His answer was, "have
ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush
God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham,
and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?
He is not the God of the
dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore
do greatly err" (Mark 12:26-27). The
Messiah used the tense of a verb to properly
understand the resurrection. This is very
literal and a good demonstration of the letter of
the law and it's proper use. If the Letter of
the Law fits with the Spirit of the Law, we need to
interpret using the letter very literally.
The Spirit of the Law has always been the way God
intended the scripture to be interpreted. This
does not mean we ignore the Letter of the Law, but
it does mean we need to make sure the Letter of the
Law fits with the Spirit of the Law when we make
judgments. This concept is what the Pharisees
and the Sadducees lacked in their own understanding.
They took this to an extreme and continually added
extra commands to God's Law to make sure the people
followed the Letter of the Law. The Messiah
dealt with this constantly in His encounters with
the Pharisees. He was constantly accused of
breaking God's Law (Matt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:5-8).
The truth is the Messiah never once broke God's Law.
If He did He could not have been the Messiah.
The fact is, the Messiah was accused of breaking the
"tradition of the elders" (Matt. 15:2) and not the
Law of God. We need to study God's Law using
biblical principles of study. The intent of
our study should be to find out how God Himself
intended the law to be. After all, this is
what the Spirit of the Law means. It is the
intent of the Lawmaker that is the law.